Friday, 22 November 2013

Alison X – Making plans for Gabriel

It was a direct result of my idea about hitching to Spain. It came out that Easter while a bunch of us were sitting in a circle on the filthy floor at James’ friends’ place, passing a joint round. I didn’t want it especially but I liked being in the circle so I took my turn. Gareth was there and Cathy and one or two of the others I knew from school, and they were talking about where they’d like to travel in the future. India and Thailand came up inevitably, and Australia and New Zealand and I don’t know how it happened but I mentioned I was going to hitch down to Spain in the summer and it was one of those moments when the music has unexpectedly stopped and you just blurt something out and you can’t pretend you haven’t. Eventually the sound of Saint Huck filled the room, covering my confusion but it was too late.
The guy sitting to my right I didn’t know. He’d been very caught up in a discussion about politics, and I’d been listening in. Soon he turned to me and asked me what was all this about going to Spain. I’d given it a little thought but if I’d been asked, flat, whether it was actually going to happen I’d have had to say no, not really. Even so, I’d applied for a passport, because, well, why not? This night though I was a little stoned and I said yes – because it was the best way to learn Spanish and I had A levels coming up. He seemed to think that was quite funny but I noticed he didn’t say it was ridiculous. He went back to his conversation and I went back to pretending to be cool with the lack of things going on. I looked across at the other people in the circle. I counted twelve of us. Some of the women were quite nice looking in a punky way. At the time I wore a touch of kohl and a bush of black dyed hair that got in my eyes, I wore black tee shirts, black jeans, black Chelsea boots and swirly psychedelic purple or turquoise shirts. I thought I looked very cool. I didn’t look like anyone else, but then, I was an art student wasn’t I. Chris, the guy next to me leaned in again. ‘Do you want a job down there?’ he said. I straightened up and nodded, not quite ready for this. I knew I’d have to work if I went at all. I had no money to speak of. On the other hand his saying this made it sound as if this trip might actually happen, and I hadn’t bargained on that. It turned out the girl on his right knew someone with a house down there who needed someone to look after the garden while he was away. My first impulse was to grill her for details and get her number and a signed confirmation that all this would definitely happen but then I thought I should try to be cool about it. I couldn’t move much to talk to her because it would have meant sitting with my back to the rest of the circle or shoving in beside her. Instead I got her name (Lorraine) and bided my time. I went to the toilet and then got myself a drink. My brain was just revving. When I got back a certain amount of shifting around had happened and Gareth pulled me down next to him and asked if it was really true what I was doing? He was planning to go inter-railing but he had some savings and his parent’s money to help him out. I said I knew there would be no point asking my folks. I wasn’t even sure I was going to tell them. I pointed to Lorraine and told him she knew someone who might be able to give me a job for the summer and Gareth asked how long I was going for and I said the whole six weeks if possible. He said he’d try to get down to visit. The girl he was with (not Rose I noted) leaned forward and smiled at me. All this time I kept an eye on Lorraine to make sure she didn’t escape. Once, I saw her get up and go out into the hall and, panic-stricken, I got up and followed her only to bump into her on her way back with bottles. I apologised profusely and she grinned knowingly at me. We went and sat back down – she handed me a bottle and asked where I was planning to hitch from and I said I wasn’t sure, maybe Dieppe and she said the best thing to do was go up to Covent Garden and find a veg lorry heading south. She said I’d need to go in the middle of the night to catch one but it was fairly reliable. Then she took my phone number and said she’d be in touch, and I sat there, completely freaked out. Nobody I knew had done anything like this, and I was only just sixteen for f*ck's sake! What was I thinking? I had to make a choice between utter terror or making an utter prat of myself. Could I put it down to being stoned? Not really. The fact was, I really wanted to do it.

Anyway, Yvonne took my mind off it. At about the time everyone else was thinking about going home we were left side-by-side in the remains of the ring, shivering in the night air let in by the open door. We made a fairly unmemorable excuse for a conversation, she fairly stoned, I totally preoccupied. I looked at her in her little black dress and messy black hair and realised she was actually not at all bad looking. She had too much make-up on of course and it had slipped somewhat and there was a pair of rather unflattering, thick, black and white stripy tights and a pair of DMs obscuring her lower half but I was definitely interested. Again, I think if I’d really realised what was happening I’d have been a lot more uptight about it and probably screwed it up. Up until then I’d been looking at her (staring actually, she told me later) and wondering about her but dismissing the idea, making excuses – because she obviously wasn’t my type, because she was dressed like that, because she obviously wouldn’t fancy me anyway, because she obviously thought I was a bit strange (that was why she kept looking at me like that). And yet I was just as convinced that I really ought to try, simply because I ought to be able to do this sort of thing, and because why not? I think that was the last time my old self stepped in and said something like ‘Oh for God’s sake, just say something. Just go and say “Hi” you plonker’ and so I did. The next thing I knew, we were lying against each other on the cushions and kissing and I was wondering if this was it and should I maybe suggest we go somewhere more private.
In lieu of making a decision we lay there, pressed together, propped up in the corner on a bean bag into the small hours while the more experienced stoners mumbled pointlessly about previous experiences on Thai sticks and bongs. I was very sober indeed but also very tired.
Sometimes, considering what a misfit, not to say rebel I’ve always considered myself, I am amazed at how stupidly polite I can be. As she lay with her leg over my thigh, running her hands under my shirt and over my belly and chest and I was handling her thickly clad arse and padded bra I was wondering if she really wanted to spend the night with me or if maybe she was just messing about. Somewhere, back in my memories I knew girls played these sorts of games all the time and I was reluctant to get caught again. As it was we passed out together on the floor there and woke up covered with a nasty smelly rug in the morning. It was Sunday and I didn’t have to be anywhere. Mum and dad weren’t expecting me. I sat up and looked at her through the murky morning light that passed through the make-shift rag of a curtain. I could only see the top of her head and I observed the pale roots through the inky black strands. She smelled of smoke and booze and something mustier that I couldn’t place. I rolled back and looked at her properly and she opened her eyes and I was relieved to see her smile sheepishly. She had a nice smile, open, mature, fruity. She held her hand out and touched my solar plexus appreciatively and I looked at her milky white cleavage. It has to be said that if a woman still looks ok the morning after, with her mascara all over her face and smelling of ashtrays she must be ok. Or perhaps it was the unreleased spermatozoa talking. Anyway I knew I didn’t look or smell any better. I asked if she wanted a drink at all but she said she needed to get home really. We sat up and took stock. She’d taken her boots off at some point and I noticed a red toenail there, poking through her tights. Then, without really thinking about it but knowing for sure that it was the right thing to do I leaned in and kissed her again, hard and strong and she gripped my waist and hips and pulled me against her. Then suddenly, almost breaking my teeth on hers she sat up and said she had to go. She reached around for her bag, panicking a little when it wasn’t immediately present, then fished around in it for a pen and paper. She wrote her name and number down, folded it, stuck it in my shirt pocket and rushed out with a shy grin. It was totally the best night of my life thus far.

On the way home I could hardly stop myself skipping along. I knew that this was something very new. I wondered how soon I could reasonably call her without looking desperate. I had a feeling that women changed their minds suddenly and arbitrarily and I had to move quickly. Something told me it would be good to have something in mind for us to do, rather than just suggest ‘getting together’ or ‘going out somewhere’. I thought about how her body felt, firm and chunky but not fat. I mentally ran my hands over her hips and remembered her waist curved in satisfyingly, and her thighs, gripping me powerfully, and her bum, broad and rounded. I tried to remember her face too but wasn’t so clear on that. The smell I remembered was what I smelled like when I’d been thinking about sex all night. It occurred to me that it might be the smell of other men. I hoped not.
Then I thought of the other conversation and wondered how I felt about that. Well anyway even the idea of hitching to Spain made me seem a lot more interesting than before, even if it never happened, so that was fine. I went back to thinking about Yvonne’s body. Mum and dad got no sense at all out of me that afternoon and I did no work to speak of.

On the Monday morning, in history, Camille came up and asked me if I was really going to Spain in the summer and I said I wasn’t sure but I was looking into it. I’m not sure I’d seen her looking impressed before. She tried hard to hide it of course. Tom and some of the others pretended not to be too impressed too and I modestly confirmed their doubts – that it didn’t sound very realistic and anyway I’d have to find a job out there since I had no money. Graham mentioned there were fruit farms that always needed workers and I should just turn up and ask around. I never paid much attention to what he said actually. He was one of those people who is always certain but often mistaken. He’ll go far no doubt. I just said maybe and let it go. I admit I was half preparing myself to go back to school in September saying ‘Oh well, at least I tried’ without losing too much face. After all no one else was even considering such a thing, except maybe Gareth and we already knew he was extremely cool. Camille also made an oblique comment about where I’d spent Saturday night and I wondered if everyone knew (of course they did). I was tempted to ask her how long I should leave it before I called Yvonne but something told me not to. It was either tonight or tomorrow night. I’d narrowed it down that far anyway. I busied myself checking out what was on that weekend in Brighton.

Anyway, I couldn’t wait. I thought well, if she’s going to be put off by something as silly as me phoning a day or two earlier than she expected, well maybe she's not the sort of person I want to spend time with anyway. It was a remarkably mature thought but I’d learned to pay extra attention to these sudden insights. The fact that I might be jeopardising my chances of losing my virginity this year made me jittery but I’d never been any good with suspense. I’d rather mess it up and know I’ve messed it up than hang around wondering if I’m going to mess it up, even if rushing it means I stand a better chance of messing up, if you see what I mean. I called her that night. A well-spoken man answered and called to her. I was a little disappointed that I had to remind her who I was (like this sort of thing happened to her all the time) and when she remembered she seemed a little off hand – friendly, certainly, but not overjoyed to hear from me. After I put the phone down I felt extraordinarily depressed.
I’d arranged to meet her at The Wick, a pub near to where she lived in Hove apparently. I’d suggested seeing a band at the Old Vic but she didn’t want to go into town. I reassured myself that she’d wanted to meet sooner, on the Wednesday rather than at the weekend, but then I thought maybe she just wanted to get it over with. Anyway I didn’t feel very optimistic when I got on the bus. It dropped me in Palmeira Square and I walked to the pub. When I got there I found her with a whole bunch of friends already well settled in for the evening and she seemed to be a bit inebriated. It wasn’t really what I’d had in mind. She did look good though – she still had the heavy mascara on, and the back-combed black hair but she had on a full silky purple dress with black lace that showed off her bosom and waist wonderfully, and on her feet were these neat little high-heeled lace-up boots.
Anyway she introduced me to everyone and I discovered they all went to the local college. A very tall guy in a biker jacket called Matt (who I was sure I knew from somewhere) said Yve had told them I was planning to do some travelling over the summer and asked where I was heading for. I said I wasn’t sure yet, Spain anyway.
‘Oh you don’t want to go to Spain’ he said ‘Greece. That’s the place.’
I felt silly telling him it was partly to help with my A level and listened to him talking about Corfu and Lesbos for the next half hour or so. Yve, as I now knew her, was talking to a girl with short red hair and I tried to look relaxed while I waited my turn. Carl, the guy sitting next to Matt said he’d been to Alicante and had a brilliant time and I should check out some friends of his just along the coast. ‘Fucking ace guitar. Fucking flamenco. You should check it out if you like guitar music.’ I said I would but it seemed a bit too literal an interpretation of the discourse to actually ask him for an address. Then I felt Yve’s hand on my thigh, searching around and finally taking my hand. She continued to chat to the couple opposite her but my mood switched instantly and I chatted happily with Matt and Carl about music for another hour. I was absolutely certain I’d met Matt before but I couldn’t think where.
It was ten o’clock before she turned to me and asked how I was. Some of her friends had left by then and others were playing pool so we had a bit more space. Her dress fell over my knees and I could feel her legs against mine. I said her friends seemed nice and she smiled and kissed me softly on the cheek. ‘Thank you’ she said. ‘I hate first dates. I like to meet people with some friends around – see how it goes. Sorry. Perhaps I should have warned you.’
I didn’t know what to say. I was struck by how confident and mature she seemed and how much I liked her rather upper class drama school accent. It was very obvious anyway that she was a little older than I was and very much in charge. Well that’s fine I thought. Lead the way. I asked her about who had answered the phone and she said it was her step-dad. ‘But he’s cool. You’ll really like him’ she added. She lit a cigarette very elegantly and I offered to get her a drink. I took the time at the bar to steady myself and clear my head. I turned and looked over at her and found her studying me. I saw the right leg crossed over the left, the stripy tights again and the little black boot bobbing in time to the music on the jukebox. She held the cigarette by her ear between her fingers. I leaned on the bar and studied her in return. She gave me a broad grin. I wondered about maybe buying some condoms in the loo, but where would we go? Maybe she thought I had a place. She had to be at least twenty. What would she think of me still living at home? Then I realised that of course she still lived at home too so that was a relief. I forced myself to relax. I paid the man and took the glasses back. As I sat down she leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. ‘Do you have to go home?’ she said. I said no and she said good. After that we collapsed in on each other, leaning in, kissing and kissing and kissing, coming up for air only when Carl and a couple of the others came back and broke us up with threats of buckets of water. It was getting on for eleven – time to leave. The lights came on, the cool spring air and the sound of taxis blew in and we stood up. For five minutes I stood aside as she talked to her friends. I felt oddly severed, as if fused to her body had been my natural state. I waited as patiently as I could then said I was going to the loo. I got three packs of two from the machine and had another piss. When I re-emerged she was alone, her hands in the pockets of a little black silk jacket, waiting for me in the doorway. I asked where we were going and she said not far and we walked arm in arm toward the sea.

Her parent’s place was huge, in one of those crescents along Brighton sea front. She let us in and I trod silently up the stairs. I still couldn’t shake the idea that I’d completely misunderstood something. It was our first date after all and we were entering her parent’s house, presumably to have sex (Or not? Maybe I’d totally misread the situation). She led me into a very posh kitchen, opened the fridge and took out a half full bottle of wine. She pointed out where the glasses were and then lead me through to the lounge. It was empty but had the warm fragrance of being only recently vacated. She poured the wine and settled at one end of the sofa. I settled at the other and then she put her feet up on my lap and asked me to take her boots off for her, which I did. I looked at her stripy feet on my lap and began to massage them. She lay back and sighed softly, then suddenly got up, went out of the room, and came back seconds later and resumed her position, now without the tights on. I held her feet, studied them, a little clammy and slightly ripe but totally female (I wouldn’t have let her touch my feet, that’s for sure). I massaged the tendon behind her heel and under her instep and between her toes. Then I ran my hands gently over her calves and felt the light stubble there. I’d never been in this situation before and yet somehow I knew exactly what to do. I gently caressed behind her knee and moved as if I might go further but always turned back. That made her moan a little. After a while she wearily lifted herself up and sat beside me. She put her arm over my shoulder and kissed me luxuriously. ‘That’s enough for now’ she said and kissed me some more and I pulled her onto my lap so her legs were spread either side and she could feel my bulge pressing against her. She bit her lip but then laid her head sideways on my chest. ‘Not tonight’ she said ‘Ok?’
Reluctantly I said ‘Ok’ and I knew there was an intervention from my past going on again. Previously I’d have been angry and frustrated and failed to hide it, or else tried to be too cool and appear unconcerned. That night I let her know I was disappointed but also that it was ok and I could wait and she gave me that look that showed she understood and appreciated it.
‘Now’ she said briskly, visibly calming herself. ‘You can have the spare room if you like or I can get you a taxi. Which would you prefer?’
I really wanted to just pass out but I said I’d get a taxi. She said it really wasn’t a problem if I wanted to stay and did I know how late it was. I looked at the clock – three-thirty. Bloody hell. I let her lead me through to the spare room and there she kissed me and left me alone. My balls were aching and I had to use the bathroom to relieve the pressure. Then I sat on the loo and thought about where I was. I suppose a lot of blokes my age would have been put off by a woman being so perhaps prematurely hospitable but I didn’t mind. I could worry about that later if necessary. I really felt like I was on my way.

I arrived home at ten in the morning and the contrast couldn’t have been much more stark. Two hours earlier Yve’s mum had been relaxed and urbane and greeted me with a handshake and a glass of real orange juice and told me to help myself to cereal or whatever. Yve flitted about already made up and in her finery for the day – black jewellery and tailored leather coat. She was good naturedly impatient with her mother and discretely flirtatious with me. She had a nine o’clock lecture so I was left to chat with her mother for half an hour. We got on fine and I caught the bus home at nine thirty. The house was empty and there was no evidence that I’d been missed. I made coffee and looked at the neat, mean little kitchen and functional d├ęcor. There was just no sense that a house should be a place of comfort. It wasn’t the poverty I minded. We weren’t poor anyway, but there was a terrible frugality to it, a kind of Puritanism. I went upstairs to get changed and there I found a note to say that a Lorraine had called about a job in Spain and there was a number to ring. This’ll be interesting, I thought.

Voyage VII – Progress

‘I remember the day I heard that the last polar bear in the wild had died’ says Lisa sadly.
‘That was just scare-mongering’ says Ruth. ‘There were others about.’
‘There were’ says Wen with authority. ‘There were actually quite a few wandering about at the end but they were too far apart to find each other to mate.’
‘That seems so sad’ says Lisa, clearly very moved.
We sit and think about how sad it was.
‘You’re far too sensitive’ says Ruth. ‘They could have put them together if they’d tried, surely. You know, tranquillise them and move them?’
‘And put them where exactly?’ says Wen. ‘The reason there were so few in the first place was because their habitat was gone. It was only a matter of time.’
‘Well how should I know? You’re the big expert. What about Antarctica?’
We all know this is a ridiculous idea and have nothing to add. We’re in the sauna again. Ruth is with us today and although she has the most technically 'good' body of any of us (albeit rather too ‘athletic’ for me) she won’t take her towel off so we all feel we have to keep covered up too. Lisa resisted for a while but even she’s fallen into line. This tells us something profoundly sad about the world I feel but can’t be bothered to work out what. Wen is particularly angry about it.
‘It was worse than with the rhinos I thought’ continues Raz. ‘With the rhinos you could imagine that one day there’d be somewhere for them to be released if they could stop the poaching, but with the polar bears that was it. It didn’t matter how many there were in zoos. That was the only place they’d ever be. There’s nowhere to release them to. It’s terribly sad.’
‘Well you’re all cheerful company today’ says Ruth and she goes out to get showered and dressed.

After we’re all thoroughly steamed and showered we head to the bar for lunch. They’re doing grilled bass with ginger and lime so we all order that except Lisa who has the halloumi. Ruth picks up from where we left off earlier, debating with Wen. I want to join in but really, I had enough of that in life. We’re dead now. Time to let it all go.
‘All I’m saying is there was no point in them making all that fuss about emissions when the whole climate’s gone tits up anyway’ says Ruth. ‘I for one would not have given up my SUV for anyone. Oh do stop looking at me like that. It was mostly a safety thing.’
‘Aw. Did the nasty cars fwighten you?’ says Wen in a silly voice.
‘And I certainly wasn’t going to give up on flying’ she adds for good measure.
‘Does anybody actually travel that much these days anyway?’ says Raz ‘I thought “travelling” was all a bit twentieth century.’
‘I used to use my villa in Bulgaria quite a bit’ says Ruth, ‘you know, for weekends and so forth...’
‘Personally I would have been very loathe to give up flying’ says Raz. ‘I was brought up in the f..ties (mumbling the actual decade through her hand) and I did not go through all that post-war austerity to have a bunch of left wing do-gooders telling me what I could and couldn’t do.’
‘So as far as you’re concerned the world can go to hell in a dust cart because you don’t like being told off’ says Wen, bluntly.
‘Whereas you lot just revel in it don’t you?’ says Ruth, sharply. We all turn to look at her glaring at Wen. Wen observes her coolly.
‘You environmentalists just love the old hair shirt routine don’t you’ she continues. ‘So f’cking holier than thou... It’s like the f’cking cultural revolution, pardon my French.’
A moment passes, then Wen, at first calmly but with increasing volume and velocity says ‘You don’t know a thing about it Ruth. Do you really imagine I enjoyed having to think about climate change and exploitation and all the rest of it? Don’t you think I’d rather have just got on and enjoyed life and not worried about all that green crap? I loved to fly as much as anyone. When I was a kid, travelling was all I ever wanted to do. But then I had to grow up Ruth. I had to accept that I couldn’t just do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I didn’t like it any more than you did but I felt I had to take some responsibility. I loved my old V70.’
We sit silently for a while, tacitly agreeing it would be a good time to change the subject but Ruth has to come back with something.
‘Well bully for you’ she says. ‘I hope it made you very happy.’
‘Happy?’ spits Wen. ‘Why would I be happy? Do you have any idea, of the damage done, by...’
‘Not my problem’ she replies turning to look at something across the room and take a sip on her wine. ‘Not my problem at all.’
Wen glares at her. ‘I wonder what our children would have to say about that’ she says.
‘Well it’s hardly going to affect my children is it?’ snaps Ruth.
She glances pointedly in my direction, as if this is somehow my fault, that she died childless. I meet her stare defiantly, but can’t ignore the feeling that I am in some way, somehow to blame – me and my kind, and this is her revenge – to see the world destroyed.
‘Oh I’m sure they’ll manage’ says Raz, jovially moving things along. ‘My Kenneth – I’d put money on him being the last one standing when the whole bloody thing boils up.’
‘Oh I don’t doubt the human race will be there after everything else is gone’ says Wen, ‘along with all the other vermin.’
‘Now look here Wen, I worked hard all my life for what I had and I refuse to take sole responsibility for the state of the world.’
‘But we’re not saying you should’ says Lisa. She wants us all to be friends again. ‘What we’re saying is that everybody should have done their bit. I just felt so sorry for all those people in Africa having to keep moving about because there’s no water. You think we had it bad...’
‘But that’s always been the way it was in Africa sweetie, for as long as I can remember. What about Biafra back in the sixties?’
‘And Band Aid’ says Ruth, suddenly very animated and cheerful again. ‘We stayed up all night. Do you remember? I pledged fifteen pounds. I don’t think I ever actually sent it but there you are. Good intentions and all that.’
Wen can barely conceal her contempt but Ruth, as usual, is oblivious and begins to hum Feed The World, swaying slightly from side to side. Lisa looks like she might join in any moment.
‘Were you aware that other parts of Ethiopia were still exporting food through all that?’ says Wen.
‘Oh don’t be such a killjoy’ says Ruth, still swaying.
‘Is that true?’ says Lisa, somewhat shocked.
‘Apparently’ says Wen, picking up her glass and draining it. ‘The point is Ruth, the upheaval in recent years has been on an unprecedented scale...’
Unprecedented upheaval you say’ says Ruth in a silly nasal voice.
‘Everything that was happening in the horn of Africa, Sudan, Chad...’
‘Chad?’ says Ruth incredulous. ‘Is that a real place or a made-up name?’
‘You haven’t heard of Chad?’ says Wen, even more incredulous.
We all look at her.
‘Well...’ she says, hurriedly ‘but I mean, really...’
‘Well. I’m sorry about all the famine and everything’ interjects Raz, possibly to save Ruth further embarrassment. ‘We’ve all just got the one life... Ok, point taken. But you know what I mean. You’ve got to make the most of it. And look, they’ve solved the energy problem with the solar panel thing.’
‘Raz, don’t you get it?’ says Wen. ‘The climate’s going to take centuries to stabilise, and in the mean time it just lets us off the hook to deforest and pollute and concrete over the rest of the world willy-nilly.’
‘What it does’ says Ruth, keen to show she does after all know some geography ‘is lets places like Nigeria and Mexico off the hook so that their populations can aspire to the standard of living we enjoy in the west and...’
‘I think you’re being somewhat naive there Ruth.’
‘I’m being naive?’
‘All this “technology will solve everything” tripe... Does anybody still believe that? It’s pure utopian fundamentalist clap-trap.’
‘Hold on. You’re saying I’m being naive?’ she repeats, clearly deeply offended.
‘And it’s just a wild coincidence that it happens to make pots of money for people like you’ adds Wen. ‘Who’d have thought it?’
‘Well doesn’t it seem a little unjust to you, to deny them the opportunities we have?’
‘Terribly unjust’ says Wen, going back to her book.
‘Or maybe they could learn from our mistakes?’ I say quietly to no one in particular. They all turn to me. ‘We’re not really trying to say that the way we live in the West is all that enviable are we?’
Raz looks surprised at the question, and a little amused. Lisa frowns. I can’t see Wen’s reaction but Ruth sits up and says ‘God yes, and I don’t believe it’s for us to stand and preach and tell them what they can and can’t have, or maybe you think we should all live like a third world country.’
‘No, obviously not, but I mean, do we all have to have all the latest gadgets and designer clothes and several foreign holidays a year and a bespoke kitchen and a garden makeover and gourmet food, and then, because you spend so much time at work paying for all this, you have to buy a lot of ready meals and pay a cleaner to look after the house and you’ve got no time for the kids so you have to employ a nanny and you have to employ someone to do the garden and I don’t know, walk the dog and pleasure the missus, and that all costs more so you spend even more time at work and you spend so much time sitting at your desk or driving around you get obese or diabetes so you have to pay to go to a gym and then that doesn’t work so you have to go and get your bum sucked or your tummy tucked, so that’s more money, so you have to spend yet more time at work...’
Raz puts her hand on top of mine. ‘I think we get the idea sweetie’ she says.
Everybody looks at me, a little taken aback I suppose. I’m completely out of breath.
‘But it’s neurotic isn’t it’ I continue, ‘all this “busy lifestyles” crap, just constantly craving the next thing, not enjoying what you’ve got...’
‘Oh hang on darling. I hope you’re not implying we’re all insane’ chuckles Raz happily. She’s enjoying herself now.
‘It’s called “growth” Gabriel’ says Ruth, without amusement. ‘The economy can’t continue without growth. Do some economics.’
‘Your economics works that way but it doesn’t have to’ says Wen, putting her book down and leaning in again. ‘A sustainable economy is perfectly...’
‘Oh God if I hear the S word once more I shall puke. You’re talking about S for stagnation Wen. Do you want to go back to living in a mud hut and dressing in cast-offs? Really, if you want to go and live in Chad or wherever, go right ahead. Excuse me if I don’t join you.’
‘That’s just nonsense Ruth and you know it.’
‘It’s progress. You can’t turn the clock back’
‘Why not? Who made that rule?’
‘Oh now you’re talking nonsense.’
‘You like this so called progress because you stand to make money out of it but lets not pretend there’s anything inevitable or unstoppable about it.’
‘Oh for God’s sake Wen. I thought this brand of utopian hippy nonsense died out with the sixties. All this is old hat.’
‘Oh my God’ says Wen, covering her mouth. ‘You mean... my opinions are unfashionable? Oh my God that’s so embarrassing. Oh well, I give in. You win.’
Raz and I snigger quietly. I glance at Lisa. She’s watching them intently.
‘Oh grow up the lot of you’ says Ruth. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘You think I believe we should all to go back to being peasants’ says Wen, ‘or hunter-gatherers perhaps – some pre-industrial, anti-technological fantasy world...’
‘You have no idea what I think Ruth.’
‘But I can imagine.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘Well go on then. Enlighten us. I don’t hear any very constructive suggestions coming from your side of the table. Come on, what’s your alternative?’
‘Well...’ and Wen seems suddenly at a loss. ‘It’s a big question’ she begins. ‘I don’t think I can explain, not just like that. But if you really want to know, you could come to the library and...’
‘Boring!’ says Ruth, rather loudly.
Wen stares at her, amused or astonished – I’m not sure which.
‘Boring boring boring’ says Ruth, ‘and useless. I knew everything I needed to know to get where I wanted to be. Anyway how do you imagine we’d have modern medicine without progress, and what about transport? What about all the cheap food you all take for granted, and clothes and all the rest of it? How’s all that supposed to happen? Huh?’
‘I’m not saying we should all live in poverty’ says Wen, rather tersely. Ruth’s not listening.
‘What about, I don’t know, telecommunications? You at least had a phone I take it.’
‘Yes, I used the internet all the time.’
‘Oh so progress is fine when it suits you.’
‘Yes, that’s what I’m saying. If we could all simply...’
‘What? Ok, so are you going to decide what the rest of us can have now?’
‘Of course not. We all have to take some responsibility, make choices...’
‘Well I think, if it’s my money, I’ve earned it, I can spend it on whatever I like...’
‘Whatever the consequences? You think that anything you can afford, you should be able to buy?’
‘Well, yes...’
‘Anything? What about, say, child pornography?’
‘Oh well obviously not... Although, come to think of it, if the rest of the world was at it we’d be fools not to look at the possibilities – with the proper safe-guards in place of course.’
We all stop to look at her, not quite believing we’ve heard what we just heard.
‘Oh for God’s sake, I’m joking’ she says, once she’s registered our reactions. ‘God, you know, the worst thing about you lefties is your total lack of a sense of humour.’
(Later on, after Ruth’s gone, Lisa turns to us and says ‘You don’t think she meant it do you?’ and we all say ‘Nah, ‘course not’ but we’re none of us sure. I still suspect she’d consider it a serious proposition as long as it didn’t involve anyone she knew personally. Maybe some of those feral kids off the estates – they’d probably be glad of an extra bob or two...)
‘So, no...’ she resumes ‘Not child pornography.’
‘Ok. Why not?’
‘Well if you don’t know why not...’
‘I know why not. I want to know why you think not.’
‘Oh look. This is getting ridiculous.’
‘Because it would be immoral, yes?’
‘Yes of course but...’
‘So you concede that you should not necessarily be permitted to buy anything you want, simply because you can afford it.’
‘Of course...’
‘But you don’t think people’s lives matter enough, in Africa for example’
‘I do but...’
‘Destroying the environment – that’s not immoral?’
‘But I don’t think my gym membership or an M&S ready meal is in quite the same league Wen. And now if you’ll excuse me I have to meet my friend. I’ll see you all later.’ And with that she collects her belongings and heads out.
Everybody is very quiet. Wen picks over the bones of her bass in a cogitating way. Lisa looks about.
‘Well that was bracing’ says Raz.
‘Sorry guys’ says Wen. ‘She just pisses me off.’
‘Don’t apologise’ says Raz, lost in her thoughts.
We sit silently for a while longer.
‘Dessert?’ says Raz, cheerfully. She and Lisa peruse the menu.

Alison IX – Loss of innocence

There was one day I remember. I was down in the Wendy house and it was windy and wet. I was in my sleeping bag in the deck chair, looking out, watching the long tailed tits inspecting the buddleia seed heads. Looking down at my legs, my body and arms all enclosed in the silky quilted material, I thought about my future. I didn’t want to but I forced myself to. I’d never done it before, or never allowed myself to. It was like chess. Life is like a game of chess they said, but chess always made me miserable. No matter how often dad tried to get me to play it never made any sense. I understood the rules of course, and the first move was ok. There wasn’t that much choice there after all, and the second was fairly uncontroversial too, but after that the possibilities multiplied. How to work out what to do next? How many possible moves were there he could make, even assuming he plays well? (If your opponent plays badly the whole thing becomes chaotic.) Say my opponent has five possible moves available to him. Say two of them make sense to me, two others make no sense but he might make them anyway either as a mistake, or because he knows something I don’t. The fifth is one I haven’t even considered but I know it could happen. I have to plan ahead responses to all five (or the four I’m aware of anyway) and make a move. There may be a couple of plausible responses to each. And then how many possible responses to each of my moves could he then possibly make? Say it’s five again. I have to keep in mind forty scenarios, and that’s only one move ahead. And one move ahead doesn’t get you very far. You need a strategy. Dad always said I’d need to think at least three moves ahead. How on earth do people work with that? How did dad do that? He never let on. I just gave up and played using the ‘it seemed like a good move at the time’ method. I never won and I was never a gallant loser. I wouldn’t have minded if I’d won just occasionally, or come a good second, but I didn’t. I was completely thrashed every time. I don’t know why he kept on trying. It was like punishment.
And that’s how life felt to me, except there are no simple rules in life, and no neat little board, and no dinky little bits of wood to move about. You can start out with a move, or even a plan ahead, but then, as Lennon said, life happens and that’s it, you’re all over the place again. I should have had “It seemed like a good idea at the time” scratched on my gravestone.
Actually, to be fair, the only people I ever knew who believed in planning were those who could delude themselves that whatever actually happened was exactly what they had been planning all along. Unfortunately we seem to go along with the delusion and these people get elected or otherwise given top jobs.

Nevertheless I tried to work out what to do about my life. I tried to work out what was possible and what was probable. Then I realised that this was pointless because the people who really achieve anything in life rely on the improbable and hitherto impossible happening for them. I had to work backwards. What did I want in life? I started a list – I maybe wanted to be a painter. I wanted to travel. I wanted perhaps to work with nature, or live in the country. I wanted a woman to fall in love with but not straight away. I wanted a few other sexual experiences first. It occurred to me that the only thing I felt really strongly about was the sex. Working as a painter was ok in theory but I’d probably have to work ridiculously hard to make a living at it and there was a good chance my work wouldn’t sell anyway. I’d probably have to mow lawns or wipe bums for a living. It didn’t sound very promising. As for the house in the country, well maybe later. I could rent a room somewhere. I wondered what else I could do to make a living. Every other sort of work I knew about seemed repetitive and boring – shops, hospitals, the council – just the same old thing every day for years on end and not enough time for everything else and then you die. Every evening I saw mum and dad get home and try to get everything they needed to do done in the few hours before they went to bed. Before, I’d thought they were just naturally bad tempered but now I realised they were just extremely tired all the time. I was like that after I got home from college if they didn’t let me rest for a while. They never allowed themselves to rest. Couldn’t they see what it was doing to them? And then at the weekend, if they weren’t doing overtime they were getting frustrated trying to fit in all their chores and errands and getting pissed off at each other or usually at me for not helping (but then getting impatient with me for being too slow of clumsy when I did help). It was a nightmare. Dad talked disparagingly about my uncles who just slobbed out in front of the box or went down the pub evenings and weekends. I didn’t want that either. I wanted to do my art, go away and see places, meet up with friends, maybe go into Brighton or London and see a band or a film. In short, there was nothing about their lives I envied but that still didn’t tell me what I wanted to do for a living.
I’d been to a careers guidance officer back in the fourth year. I’d been embarrassed about telling him I wanted to be a painter and he’d looked at my O level options and suggested something in the local council or maybe working at Smith’s. I discovered later that he always suggested working for the council to arts students. I asked about being a librarian but he wasn’t very enthusiastic. He said I’d need a degree and at the time university was just unimaginable. Now I considered it again. I still couldn’t imagine my parents agreeing to it but if I got my A levels, or even just two of them I could, in theory, go, at least to poly. Nobody’d mentioned the possibility yet, or not for me anyway. Tom and Roy were already planning their Oxbridge applications but the rest of us hadn’t got that far. Anyway that was all a long way off. I had to get through the next year and a half first.
The next thing I wrote down came from nowhere – Hitch to Spain and find a job for the summer. It was a completely random notion. Somewhere in my mind I had the question – why am I learning Spanish? Then I thought – what do I want to do with my Spanish? And how could I get really fluent in Spanish? Or French for that matter? I had this image of arriving in the town square of one of those whitewash and terracotta hill towns and finding some work and maybe a girl and having a fabulous time – maybe get some amazing drawings done. And then, when I got back in September I’d be tanned and rugged and I’d have stories to tell and maybe an English girl would fancy me too because I was now so worldly and mature. Six weeks in Spain. Who could help me with that? I hadn’t a clue but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone.

Back at college the next week something in me had changed. I looked at what we were doing and saw it for the first time as part of a larger scheme. I picked out the bits of the courses that already made sense to me and made a list of the things that interested me. Then I looked at what I needed to know if I wanted to pass the A level and sorted out the gaps – the bits I didn’t understand and the bits I wasn’t interested in. I’d been wondering if I could get by by ignoring these bad bits and concentrating on the good bits. That was when I realised that the bad bits were not that big a deal – just a few gaps here and there. How had I come to let them dominate my thinking so much before? There was some stuff about using reflexive verbs, some acts of parliament, some technicalities about glazes and print making processes. That was about it. How come it had seemed so insuperable? Later I realised it was dad’s philosophy again. With any task it was his way always to ignore what was good and easy and to worry first at the intractable. Typically he would begin with the difficult parts and let it get him down and only at the end, if he had time, do the parts he was comfortable with, as a reward I guess. I resolved to start with the parts I felt happiest with and only do the difficult parts if I had time. I also realised I was going to have to prioritise. Four A levels was just too much for me I decided, and surplus to requirements anyway. I only needed three, with a good pass at art to get me where I wanted to be. I decided to let the French slip. I didn’t want to give it up but I couldn’t give it the attention it really needed if I was going to do well enough at the other three. I felt much better once I’d made that decision.
All this probably seems obvious to most people but to me it was a total revelation. As it was, in practice, with the easy parts out of the way, the few difficulties generally fell into place. Plus I began to have the wonderful sensation of getting through a lot of work quickly. The fact that the tough part was still waiting for me totally failed to dampen my enthusiasm. I worked quietly and efficiently until Easter and by then had almost totally caught up and was beginning to get good marks.
At the same time I’d become a lot more relaxed during breaks and with my new-found ease I felt a lot more confidant. Carly said ‘You’re actually quite a funny guy aren’t you’ which I reckon was the nicest thing anybody had ever said to me. I began to feel like more a part of the group instead of hanging on the edge. I started meeting some of the others outside college and discovered there was a whole extra-curricular life they’d been having while I trudged home and worried myself catatonic. Some of us got together for study sessions, or had modest parties if parents were away for the evening but then, as the summer term progressed there were actual gigs and proper parties to go to.

Of course ones personality doesn’t change, whoosh, just like that. I was still very much in the background but at least I was in the picture. Over the next six months we went to see Echo and the Bunnymen and The Psychadelic Furs, The Sex Objects, Southern Death Cult and The Nukes, plus a whole lot of local bands (The Virtuous Heathens I remember being especially good fun – decaying glam gothic in spandex and big hair). We saw Performance and The Hunger and Midnight Express at The Duke of York’s. We wandered around the North Laines looking at second hand clothes and sat in Zerb’s watching the freaks go by. Occasionally there was a real party to go to (as opposed to just sitting around in somebody’s room listening to their latest LPs and discussing college assignments). The real parties mostly tended to involve friends of James who were a wee bit older and had their own flat in Portslade. I tried smoking dope but found it rendered me even more unable to speak than usual. More importantly, parties meant I actually managed to meet some new women. This was of monumental importance.
Up until that point (and now I realise not just in this life) I’d tended to assume that everybody except a few obvious weirdos (including myself) had probably been shagging more or less continuously since they hit puberty. It was only after it happened to me that I realised I had entered a strange and secretive club. The girls I pretty much knew had been doing it for some time with their dodgy, possibly criminal boyfriends, but very few of the guys I hung around with seemed to be getting any at all. Graham had been seeing Rachel since they were in junior school and they were already talking about marriage so they didn’t count. James had had a semi-serious girlfriend and Gareth had slept with Rose. That was it as far as I could tell. So when I ended up spending the night with Yvonne everybody was as surprised as I was.

A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.